2 out of 5
Marvel has been re-releasing their original Marvel Knights books in new softcover collections with matching trade dressing. I dig the design – black backed covers, red and white title fonts – and they’re printed on this super floppy and glossy stock that really packs the pages slimly, making the books feel weighty; a good bang for your buck. This Black Widow set – collecting three mini-series which cover pivotal moments in the life of Yelena Bolova – the GRU’s second Black Widow after Natasha – is a nice set, bringing together these linked tales under one roof and tossing in some sketches and interviews and extra covers… but the stories themselves aren’t that great. And may in fact be pretty dumb at times.
All three tales have strong central concepts, and have our writers paired with very visual artists: J.G. Jones, Scott Hampton, and Igor Kordey. The first, written solely by Devin Grayson with Jones art, squares Belova off against Romanova, with the two tasked for the same mission and both taking the opportunity to high-kick each other in the face to prove their Widow supremacy. The spy vs. spy pair-off is a lot of fun, but we see a trend which persists in the other stories: a more interesting psychological component gets stomped ‘neath comic book contrivance. In this case, Grayson begins to pluck at Romanova’s questioning of her own identity – what makes her unique – which is obviously picqued further by the appearance of this other Widow. But blah blah never mind that, save the world, and the story pulls out repeated “I thought you were dead but you’re not” twists to the point of Saw ridiculousness, and the ending has a big bad villain plot that makes very little sense.
The second tale, with painted art by Scott Hampton and now with Greg Rucka co-writing, seems to initially double down on the more interesting Widow vs. Widow aspect of the preceding arc, but then also doubles down on the comic nonsense and gets itself very confused on the whole Why of the endeavor. Romanova convinces Belova – through S.H.I.E.L.D. chicanery – that she is actually Belova, getting Daredevil to assist in the charade, and then tasks her with killing… Yelena Belova. Somewhere, in a narrative world without as much spandex, this is a great setup for a psychological thriller, but Grayson and Rucka simply aren’t up to the task, here. Making some assumptions on the co-writer divide, you can feel Rucka’s formative comic book stylings trying to force the characters into a box for a proper study, while, perhaps, Grayson keeps trying to kick it back toward action adventure stuff. It’s a discomfiting divide, and it makes the story less interesting and sillier as it goes along.
Igor Kordey and a now solo Rucka took the book to Marvel MAX for the final tale (though obviously presented here under the Marvel Knights banner), and given that the MAX imprint had to earn its concept, it’s staged in a sex club – and now nearly twenty years ago, the easy ‘S&M is a perverse kink!’ trope seems very dated – and feels very desperate to prove itself as an ‘adult’ book. Rucka, to his credit, smartly wraps back around to Belova becoming the Black Widow, meaning he can skip out on the comic book indulgences and stick to his (then) wheelhouse of espionage and crime, with Yelena investigating the death of the man who trained her. Unfortunately, while the setup is, again, sound, that above-mentioned early habit of Greg’s of writing his comics more like books really cludges up the story. Imagined as a book, and setting aside Greg’s also early habit of tsk-tsking any non-vanilla sex, Yelena’s struggles with learning her teacher’s secrets while looking into his murder – and some fascinating stabs at pulling apart a complex teacher / student or father / daughter type relationship – would make for great plotting intrigue. Boiled down to a three issue book, which also has to keep shoving MAX stuff in our face, it ends up falling very short, and the difficulty Yelena has in dealing with some very simple scuffles never ends up feeling as justified as it should, making her – and the book’s intended thrills – seem weak.
The reminder on the trade’s cover that this is NOT FOR KIDS – presumably to warn off parents looking to shop for Avengers (the movie)-adjacent books for their youngins – is pretty funny though.